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The future of the workplace – the office is not dead just yet

Image by Steelcase

Covid-19 will undoubtedly change the nature of office work, but it is far too soon to pronounce the death of the office.

At the most basic level, South Africa’s Department of Labour and Employment’s occupational health regulations require that as employees head back to offices, employers must have screening facilities, adequate ventilation, facilitate physical distancing, provide cloth masks and hand sanitiser.

But even with these measures in place, it’s not a case of sauntering back into the office like it was the good old days, especially considering how much is still being learnt everyday about the coronavirus: how airborne is it? Will elongated exposure to the viral dose affect the severity? Should we be concerned about air conditioning? There is much that is uncertain as companies gradually open their offices, including whether or not they might have to reverse their decision and close up again.

The global lockdowns have also caused uncertainty about the future of the office as we know it; and many articles have looked into the proverbial crystal ball, asking questions such as “Is this the end of office life?”, and some declaring  “Work From Home Is Here to Stay: The future of jobs after the pandemic is a blurry mix of work, life, pyjamas, and Zoom”.

Image by Steelcase

Image by Steelcase

For those designing office spaces, the challenge goes beyond just adhering to guidelines and trying to guess whether the office as a concept will survive the pandemic. The race is on to innovate and imagine the office of the future, not only ensure employee safety, but to secure their own futures. After all, what use is an office furniture company in a world with no offices?

“Infection control is a new priority. Employees will not return to an office that doesn’t feel safe, and most of today’s high-density workplaces, with extensive reliance on hotelling and shared ancillary spaces will need to be modified… As we navigate what’s next, our solutions are holistic and consider not just furniture, but also materials, technology, planning paradigms and even behaviours and protocols,” writes Jim Keane, president and CEO of Steelcase, a global company that is over a century old, with 12,000 employees and 800 dealers across across the globe, which offers products, services to help companies “create and maintain a sustainable, interconnected workplace”. Basically, offices are their business.

Sanitation station. Image by Steelcase

On their website, they have gone on what is arguably an aggressive push to champion the role of the office space, offering ideas, designs and renders suggesting ways a post-Covid office might look and function. They have also partnered up with MIT researchers to “explore how workplace design can mitigate the spread of disease.”

One article focuses on the many already available options for a “hands-free workplace”, such as being able to book meeting rooms from your smartphone, screens outside of meeting rooms that are large enough to allow employees to read the information at a distance, even bigger screens like the Microsoft Hub 2, which replace the whiteboard and allow for voice activation, and can mirror smartphones and tablets, thereby avoiding the touching of ink markers and erasers.

Microsoft Hub 2S replaces the whiteboard. Image by Microsoft

Steelcase Live Map to help employees work out which areas of the office are less populated

Another looks at ways in which fabric screens can be used to break the office apart so that there is a distance between sitting areas. Some of these new designs bear an uncanny resemblance to the cubicles of old, albeit in more current designs.

Safe circulation is also becoming a key part of mobility in the office space. How do companies set up offices so that employees are able to get around while maintaining physical distance? They’ve also developed Steelcase Live Map, a system that combines scheduling data from Microsoft 365 and sensors around the building, so that employees can glance at a screen to spot unpopulated workspaces.

Image by Steelcase

Image by Steelcase

While there is no way yet to accurately predict what the world of office work will look like after the pandemic, nor when that would be exactly, to imagine that major corporations would simply abandon the brick, mortar and glass behemoths they have invested billions into, in favour of long-term remote working seems like a leap at this stage.

Take for example one of South Africa’s most prized office real estate, the Sandton commercial district in Johannesburg. Over the last two decades, and even more so in the last 10 years, Sandton has become home to some of the biggest and most influential companies in the country, including Sasol and Discovery, the former having invested R2-billion in their offices and the latter paying R23-million per month to rent the R3-billion development completed in 2018 by Growthpoint, which houses some 8,000 employees.

Discovery headquarters in Sandton. Image by Gallo Images / Alet Pretorius

“Of Discovery’s 12,000 or so employees, we averaged about 1,700 (14%) working from the office and the remainder worked from home [during lockdown alert level 5] ,” says David Pierre Eugene, Discovery’s head of Corporate Real Estate Solutions in a Q&A provided by Discovery. “We aim to bring 20% more of the staff complement back with each move to a lower lockdown alert level. However, our guiding principle will, for a while to come, be that business within the Discovery Group should equip and empower their employees to work from home if possible,” he adds.

Going forward, the company has tasked business units to take their specific needs into consideration and “design a shift system that limits the number of people on-site at any one time to 30% to 40% of employees.”

Discovery is but one of many companies faced with the challenges that the pandemic presents to their organisational infrastructure, as well as their real estate investments.  The area of Sandton where the company is located is also home to 2.1 million square metres of office space spread across numerous companies, buildings and skyscrapers.

According to data compiled and published in October 2019 by Gmaven, a commercial real estate (CRE) software specialist and data processing company, Johannesburg’s “blue chip node” – Sandton, Rosebank and Bryanston – have a combined 3.4 million square meters of office space. To put it into perspective, that’s approximately 340 rugby fields of offices between those three areas, and they represent billions upon billions of rand in investment. Then there is the rest of the province and the country.

In addition to its direct effect on companies, a permanent change in the nature of work will also have a significant impact on the companies that service and supply them. Be that cleaning companies, water cooler manufacturers, or the coffee shops commonly found in business districts, as well as the likes of the previously mentioned Steelcase.

Even before Covid-19, remote work had been experiencing growth, especially among young adults.

On that company’s website, there is also an interview columnist and author, Kevin Roose, who wrote a column titled Sorry, But Working from Home Is Overrated for the New York Times back in March 2020. “In a lot of ways, remote workers are halfway automated. You are a green dot in a Slack channel or a floating head in a Zoom call… Remote workers are not only putting themselves at risk of being replaced by a robot, but they are also putting themselves at greater risk of being replaced by another person. If you go remote, the number of competitors for your job has now expanded to everyone in the world. For a lot of workers, it may be more comfortable to be at home, but if you’re thinking strategically about your future, you’re going to want to be in the office. And, obviously, it has to be safe to do that. But I think this pandemic could set the remote work trend back in the end,” says Roose.

In case you’re not quite convinced yet that the office is where it’s at, at least according to Steelcase, another titled Why do we miss the office? And will we still love it when we return? adds a dose of nostalgia. It begins: “The simple joy of coffee with coworkers in the café. Sketching out ideas on whiteboards, post-it notes and digital displays in comfortable meeting spaces. It’s the collective energy and vibe of a space full of people united in a common purpose.”

Even before Covid-19, remote work had been experiencing growth, especially among young adults. The body of research on the benefits of remote working has continued to grow, such as the popular and oft-cited 2014 study by Stanford professor Nicholas Bloom, which examined remote workers at a Chinese travel agency and found them to be 13% more efficient than office-based peers.

More previously office-bound employees are likely to keep on working remotely even after the pandemic. Companies like Twitter have already gone public with their intentions to go permanently remote. Some CEOs, excited by savings and a higher level of productivity, are embracing a future of hybrid working models, where some roles are remote.

While some of these moments would be tempting for opponents of the office and trend forecasters to imagine that Covid-19 will sound the death knell for the office space, that seems unlikely in the near future. If we are to judge by the steady staggered return to work being implemented by companies such as Discovery and others, and the technologies, hygiene practices, and office design that is responsive to challenges brought on by the coronavirus, the office is changing, evolving, not dying. New technologies and behaviours are being put into place to ensure safety. Whether they will be effective remains to be seen.

Rather than attention-grabbing headlines and anecdotes, one way to gauge whether or not companies are truly embracing a remote-working future, is to keep an eye office general vacancy rates, which have already been consistently higher than they should be in areas like Sandton, where in 2019, 21.8% of available office space remained unoccupied.

According to a 2020 first-quarter report form the South African Property Owners Association (Sapoa), “The impact of the Covid-19 [pandemic] will likely take several quarters to filter through into the office sector’s vacancy rate as leases come up for renewal in the months and quarters following the nationwide lockdown.”

Ultimately, whether or not those leases are renewed in the coming months, whether or not companies choose smaller offices that accommodate less employees while maintaining their staff, will be the closest thing to a crystal ball to help us figure out whether or not the office as we know it is dead, dying, or simply evolving. DM/ML

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